The Colours of Criticism: Julian Barnes’ ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’

Harry McNamara 26 April 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Does it make a difference to look out from your sitting room window through opera glasses rather than any other model of spectacles? It was one of Flaubert’s pastimes, according to Geoffrey Braithwaite in Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), who also tells us, startlingly I think, that ‘Flaubert spent a whole afternoon examining the countryside through pieces of coloured glass.’

Flaubert’s Parrot invites us, in this way, to re-examine words and stories unconsciously used and told. Barnes holds up a piece of coloured glass and the effect is spectacular. Dr Braithwaite – the retired doctor, whose professional honorific is shadowed ironically by his dismissal of career academics, and neatly draws the line between the practice of critic and surgeon – quotes Flaubert’s description of a sun setting like ‘a large disk of redcurrent jam’. In a stroke of compelling literary criticism he glosses the simile by investigating the historical constitution of redcurrent jam in the middle of the nineteenth century and from there, like peeling off the dirt on a fresco, sees if the colour might now differ.

Braithwaite exposes the technology of a literary process, the mechanics of a trope that offers a story in itself (about jam), and all the while there is the murmur of the ridiculousness of a too-assiduous critic. He is at once formulating a meta-text while creating a stunning literary text of his own. That the colour of redcurrent jam might have been different shifts the world a little bit, repositions us as readers, and from our new vantage point asks us to re-examine the image of the Norman sunset we had originally called to mind. That care is the mark of Barnes’s project.

In this mode of re-examination we handle the rehearsed phrases and idioms differently in our minds. Turning on the tourist’s lexicon, Braithwaite pronounces he has ‘nothing to declare’ at customs, which, in the way Barnes’s balances it in his text, twists, parodically Romantic, into ‘duty’, playing out a drama of grander things alongside the strained dullness of import taxes. This process is enlivening and consistently worked through the novel’s idiom.

Much of Flaubert’s Parrot shifts our view of the ordinary to tap ironies out of unassuming events and manners. This is because it takes up Flaubert’s view of the world; his humour worked to bring out beautiful colours in serious things, though often cruelly. Braithwaite defines the ‘Flaubertian grotesque’ for us: like a camel, because it ‘cannot help being serious and comic at the same time’. I admire that technique of colouring the world, and it goes someway to explaining why an afternoon holding up pieces of coloured glass through which to look at the countryside is not ridiculous, or if it is, that that doesn’t mean it is a redundant task.

But Barnes jokes about this self-consciousness too: ‘There were still bears around in Gourstave’s time’ and lumbering references to ‘Flaubear’. It is unsmooth and uncool, tripping us up when we thought the task of literary truth was serious. But then the mood is despair within lines: quoting Flaubert, ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’ Braithwaite’s playfulness howls in a silence: he can’t tell us about his regret of an unhappy marriage, that he doesn’t really miss his wife, and that he was unmoved revisiting the beaches of Normandy where his friends died. Yet he can be touched by Flaubert’s stuffed parrot in the next-door museum.

Somewhere between an obsessive and an enthusiast, Braithwaite pieces together a dossier of quite bizarre objects, in the novel’s miscellaneous form, which dedicates whole chapters to data about zoo animals, a paragraph to record Dumas’s recipe for bear paws cooked Moscow-style, a list of pets so thorough that he notes ‘In 1858, a wild rabbit takes up residence in the garden; Gustave forbids its slaughter’, and in 1866 Flaubert dined alone ‘with a bowl of goldfish’. The novel is inventoried with trivia that is given, in some quest for truth, a value.

The effect is like that of the coloured glass, altering our view, pausing to look for longer at things usually glanced at or that remain unseen. It manages too, in a manner that will inevitably face accusations of snobbery, to shiver at brief public interest and the brutally reduced shapes of collective wisdom. These are ‘hand-me-down summaries for those in a hurry’. It pauses on details that are not properly scrutinised and this test is illuminating, unsettling those things that are held as certainties, as truths even.

There are episodes that resemble travel writing, and Barnes is comfortable in this style, noticing the eccentricities and missable manners that ensure the sensitivity required of the travel writer in the same way that the novel at large preoccupies itself with this sort of material. Cutting a Henry James figure, Braithwaite likes to cross the channel to Normandy in the off-season, as James would migrate in counterpoint to the fashionable movements of polite society from London to the country or out to Europe. This tension aids discovery. The opening itself seems to obey a travel form, watching on at the gestures of boule players beneath a statue of Flaubert in Rouen – ‘Flaubert doesn’t return the gaze’ – from the very start teasing out the questions of artistic form, with the statue, initiating the search for its biographical honesty. (Geoffrey Hill said that Michelangelo’s slaves, straining against their form, always seemed a more appropriate metaphor for writing than sculpture).

The biography is doubled, and in this structure we become sensitive to the glaring inarticulacy of Braithwaite’s autobiography. His collection of anecdotes is a digression, taking up the Tristram Shandy conceit, from the unliterary story of his own life. It’s on the ferry that this begins to be confronted, as the first person narrative really pronounces itself as speaking directly to us. Braithwaite is not soliloquising anymore. It is at a grim bar that the narrative is cleverly altered into a dialogue: ‘I’ve fetched myself another whiskey; I hope you don’t mind. Just getting braced to tell you about…’ is the shift. And then he talks to us this directly for the rest of the chapter, wielding the same device that Fleabag does, cruelly modern in a similar vein, to achieve a structural sharpness that cuts through to us. We are his accidental stranger companion on a ferry, struggling to find the words for his unhappy marriage through the busyness of his Flaubertian stories.

We begin to notice the anxiety elsewhere as his passages become cluttered with evidence, in hyper-research: ‘He works like a mule (1852); he lives a life which would kill three rhinos (1872); he works ‘like XV oxen’ (1878); though he advises Louise Colet to burrow away at her work like a mole (1853)’, and it goes on, slipping up with the dates in parentheses that read like they’re spoken with a stammer.

The breakthroughs are refreshing. There is an encounter with another researcher – Ed Winterton – whose subject is the English poet-critic Edmund Gosse. It’s the only interaction that breaks Braithwaite’s solitude for an extended time. They meet ‘when he put his hand on mine in the Europa Hotel’ reaching for a book. A literary joke that continues the novel’s unfailing consciousness of its form, here flirting parodically with the Romance plot. Winterton’s character provides a commentary on the method of the biographer and literary critic that repositions Braithwaite’s work in this discipline.

Winterton discovers revelatory letters from Flaubert that will transform the academic field but he burns these texts on the spur of an ethical quibble (Flaubert had asked the recipient to burn them so Winterton, a century later, is obliged to fulfil his will). It is a typical Barnesian bathos: a letter in A Sense of An Ending (2011) is burnt too, a device that catastrophises the plot and deprives the story of conventional resolutions or progress.

A text is destroyed, firing up the instability of the text of Flaubert’s Parrot itself, which is, variously, a biography, an autobiography, a travel book, a dictionary, a train spotters’ guide, and a Literary Theory exam paper. Flaubert’s Parrot feels like a text that’s been dismantled in the rigour of its analytical processes and, confronted by a heap of pieces, it is a struggle to reassemble. And this collapse is an expression of the failure of literary criticism as Braithwaite sees it.

The episode with Winterton mostly serves to expose the peculiarity characteristic of the researcher, whose own life and traits impose on their project. The novel as a whole is a commentary on the practice of literary criticism, attacking Dr Enid Starkie at one point, the Oxford Reader in French Literature, for her methods which occupy that paradox that in the scruple of research the insight is blinded. Made more glaring by the fact that Braithwaite falls this way too at times. Aptly, the issue is Madame Bovary’s eyes, and the inconsistency of their colour in Flaubert’s descriptions. In a display of his own rigorous literary criticism, Braithwaite revises Starkie’s view and, with reels of his own evidence, shows the multi-coloured eyes to be a deliberate touch by Flaubert in the designing of his character. Toppling the authorities encourages us to re-examine what is before us, and in this way it is radically illuminating. But he is one of them, and the novel doesn’t truly depart from that fact – how could it – and I’m glad of that.

There is a sad calm in the end, as the mission of telling a pure story is left marked. In this undiscovery Braithwaite’s stunning loneliness is laid bare. This is loneliness of an enthusiast who believes and loves other worlds more than his own, and finds his comfort and companionship in that – as Thomas Hardy’s hand reaches out to Hector in The History Boys. His wife, when he finally comes to tell us about his marriage, is ‘someone I feel I understand less well that a foreign writer, dead for a hundred years’. The condition of the literary enthusiast relies on a private subjectivism that delivers us the reader the autonomy to make our own choices about truth. In the most technically literary way, it leaves us alone.